Friday, June 4, 2010

Virtual Charters and the Kids Down the Road

The New York Times has a piece up documenting the continued growth of online charter schools - by definition paid for at taxpayer expense, and at the same level of individual student funding as brick-and-mortar schools.  This means that a virtual charter can expect to receive anywhere from $5-7k per student, or whatever the going rate is in that district.

From the article:
  • There are no libraries, cafeterias, playgrounds, coaches, janitors, nurses, buses or bus drivers.
  • Twenty percent of California’s 872 charter schools now conduct some or all of their classes online.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I taught for 3 years at a California charter school based around a similar model.  While a small number of its students, such as those I taught, were served in more traditional school houses, most of the nearly 3000 students were home-schooled.  These students received up to $800 for curriculum and supplies, and access to an "education specialist", a fully-compensated credentialed teacher who met with the family weekly or bi-weekly to oversee progress, and who usually had around 30 students on their roster.  So basically, the school paid a teacher around $60k, and took in 210k - all without the normal expenses associated with running a school building.

The homeschool parents were by and large thrilled with the service.  Mostly mid to upper-SES, they had the typical human and social capital to provide a quality education to their child.  What this typically meant was that the household had two parents, and enough income to support one parent (usually the mother) staying home to teach the children.  They had access to online resources that served as lesson guides, and the ability to meet their child's academic needs.  I don't have access to such specific demographic data, but my guess would be that most had a college education.

While there were a handful of schools in which students came in for instruction in a classroom setting - "acedemies" they were called, they represented only a small number of enrolled students.  Of the academies, only a few served primarily low-SES familes.  In fact, ours happened to be one of maybe two, located as we were in a small, poor town 2 hours from the corporate offices.  Our school had begun as a small K-12 staging area for the largely upper-SES, white, religious families in the community who sought homeschooling as a way to avoid the neighborhood schools, which were mostly poor and Hispanic.  Yet as a charter school, any local children were allowed to attend, and the original population was slowly replaced with one that reflected more clearly the demographic make-up of the surrounding area.

Currently, 35% of the school's students are eligible for free & reduced lunches, a standard means-tested measure of poverty in any given school.  At our academy, this would likely been at least 80% of the population.  Unfortunately, a range of administrative failures resulted in a profound denial of resources to these students.  Had they attended the local public school, they would have had access to a variety of services.  Yet the academy was seen by many parents as preferable; many considered it somewhat exclusive - almost "private schoolish".  This was certainly how the school wanted to present itself.  As most of the parents were unfamiliar with what a good school environment really looked like, few among them having gone to college or experienced much academic success in life, they were ignorant of what their children were missing out on.

Sadly, the main component of a "good school" is often simply students from higher-SES parents.  So such a large percentage of poor families in one school inevitably requires a whole range of special resources to compensate: better teachers, better administration, smaller classes, as well as a variety of extra services like meal programs, special education, etc.  In many ways our school did as well as any school could have hoped.  Our teachers and staff were dedicated and caring, we had high standards, and did our best to work with meager resources.  But we were in no position to offer what these students really needed.

Despite our students' eligibility for federal Title I resources - extra funding for poor students, we struggled to provide a bare minimum:
  • We had no meal program (no breakfast or lunch).  Students often came to school hungry, without food, or with nothing but a soda and a bag of chips.
  • We had no library, or librarian.
  • We had no PE, Music, or Art teachers.  Foreign Languages were taught via software.
  • There was no budget for field trips.  No school bus.
  • We had one special education teacher, working on a pull-out basis.  No special day class.
  • We had a skeleton crew for yard duty.  Teachers had no preparation periods.
In my time there, enrollment was in rapid decline.  Apparently many parents were realizing that their students were being under-served.  In my final year, the elementary grades had been divided into combination classes, where one teacher would be responsible for teaching two different grades.  I was stuck teaching Kindergarten and First.  With a low-SES population, this meant taking kids who were woefully unprepared and struggling to get them all to where they needed to be - x2.  In order to give direct instruction to each grade level, I was forced to rotate the students in groups of 4, 4 times a day.  This meant 16 separate activities in math and reading.  All without a prep.

I ended up being sent to teach high school science mid year, as the students there had already received a semester's instruction from a substitute.  There were only 3 high school teachers (English, Math, History) as it was.  The school hadn't been able to afford to pay for an assistant director - so she'd have to teach elementary.  As a young man, they thought I could do better with the rowdy highschoolers.  I began teaching Chemistry, Biology and Earth Science in February.  Fortunately I actually enjoyed it.  I went on that summer to get a credential in Geosciences.  That fall I taught Chemistry, Biology, Earth Science, Career Exploration, Visual Arts and Journalism.  But as more students left or dropped out, by November they couldn't afford me and I was laid off.  The science courses were split between the English, Math and History teachers.

Of course, there was no union.  Teachers were often fired the last week of school, and always for seemingly arbitrary reasons.  The principal wasn't really a principal - she was 2 hours away.  He was a site administrator.  This meant that the little input he had in site decisions (he didn't have a budget), always had to be passed through corporate offices.  Suffice it to say what teacher input there might have been was strangled.  We eventually gave up on leadership committees.  We were either too busy, felt our input was unwanted, or simply too scared to question the school's increasingly poor service of its students.

The school's principal had previously come under fire for financial corruption and misuse of funds.  The result was a split from a former organization and her establishing the present charter through the county district.  Her husband is the chief financial officer.  This may explain why the school was so comfortable with what may have been its most fraudulent activity.

When I was hired to teach Kindergarten, I learned that I was technically to be called an "Education Specialist", just like the homeschool advisers.  This was because, technically, the academies were simply meeting places for homeschool students, although the students all attended full-time.  This odd arrangement had a very lucrative benefit for the school: as long as the student could be accounted for having done a lesson at home, they could miss a day and still be claimed as having attended.  Teachers were required to fill out a sheet of paper every month on which they would check if a student had completed an educational activity for each eligible day of attendance.  In theory, the parent would arrange in advance for an absence, and the teacher would arrange for an activity to take place.  Of course, an activity might take no more than an hour, and in no way could be considered equal to a full day's attendance on-site.

What was more often the case however, was that the student would simply not show up to school, with no contact from the parent.  The teacher would mark the absence.  Yet teachers were routinely pressured to go back and have students do a "make-up" assignment so that a full attendance day could be claimed.  The justification for this was, wink-wink, more money from the state = more money for the school to provide better services.  Classes routinely had 100% attendance rates.  Yet, if any money was indeed "trickling down" to the site, we certainly saw no evidence of it.

As far as I know, the site is still surviving.  Although it remains to be seen how much longer they can continue attracting students.  The larger school, meanwhile, is flourishing.  As the story in the Times suggests, many parents have discovered quite a large loophole in the public school system that allows for what amounts to a de facto voucher for private education.  Our academy was seen as a sort of pro bono charity case, in which poor students who otherwise would not have had access to the homeschool model, and ultimately for whom public education was originally designed, were being thrown a bone.  But I doubt very many virtual and homeschool charters are even bothering with a pretense of generosity.

Philosophically, the problem with the voucher model - full funding for individual student expenses - is antithetical to the public school model, which is ultimately founded on the principal that society is responsible for providing a basic education to every child.  Public resources aren't divvied up according to head-counts.  Like an insurance model, they provide a baseline coverage and then allocate resources accordingly.  We don't demand "our fair share" of auto insurance when we don't have accidents.  We don't demand our fair share of health insurance when we don't get sick.  This is the general model for public services in general.  We don't demand our fair share of parks, roads, libraries, police or emergency services when we don't use them.  We believe that society at large should come together and share our collective wealth in order to provide what we believe are basic human rights.

When a high-SES student receives a maximum share of public education funds, they are taking money away from other children who do not possess the same level of human and social capital.  Those students are then further marginalized into schools whose demographic  make-up is increasingly similar to theirs, placing an ever higher burden on institutions that are designed to turn no child away, to "leave no child behind".  As it stands, one of the greatest barriers to reducing the socio-economic achievement gap is our unwillingness to adopt fundamentally means-tested education services.  My daughter, bless her heart, has two college educated parents who themselves came from parents of reasonable means.  When she enters Kindergarten next year, in a neighborhood composed largely of other higher-SES families that feeds an extremely high-achieving elementary school, she will be reading, writing and doing math at a roughly mid-1st grade level, not to mention having a generally well-enriched vocabulary and cognitive capabilities.  She will receive a very similar level of state resources very similar to the children from the poor communities a few miles down the road.

It isn't hard to see what this means for her future, as well as that of the kids in poor communities.  It isn't fair.  It isn't moral.  It isn't just.  It isn't what America stands for.  As long as we continue to think in such selfish and uncompassionate terms, we will continue to fail our future generations.

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